May 4, 2009

Carl Sagan Devolving, Part I

“A little error in the beginning amounts to a colossal one in the end.” --Aristotle

In The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Origin of Human Intelligence, author and scientist Dr. Carl Sagan compares primate and human cognitive capacities. Sagan’s viewpoint initially presumes the human mind differs from the primate mind in degree only. This position has radical implications for how man understands his place in nature and his relation to cosmos. In essence, Sagan agrees with Charles Darwin’s statement on this subject in the Descent of Man. Darwin made the following assertion:

“The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind…If it could be proved that certain high mental powers, such as the formation of general concepts, self-consciousness, et cetera, were absolutely peculiar to man, which seems extremely doubtful, it is not improbable that these qualities are merely the incidental results of other highly-advanced intellectual faculties; and these again mainly the results of the continued use of perfect language.”

Sagan disagrees with mankind’s prevailing opinion throughout recorded history expressed in the words of the English philosopher John Locke: “Beast’s abstract not.” In response to Locke’s statement, Sagan asserts that abstract thought is a matter not of kind but of degree, and that higher animals display abstraction, though rarely and less deeply than humans.

The following extended excerpt from John Locke’s, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding serves to underscore the irreconcilable difference in views between Sagan and Locke. The quoted text also provides a point of reference since Sagan fails to define key terms he is using.

In Book II (Ch. 11) Locke says,

9. “The use of words then being to stand as outward marks of our internal ideas, and those ideas being taken from particular things, if every particular idea that we take in should have a distinct name, names must be endless. To prevent this, the mind makes the particular ideas received from particular objects to become general; which is done by considering them as they are in the mind such appearances, separate from all other existences, and the circumstances of real existence, as time, place, or any other concomitant ideas. This is called abstraction, whereby ideas taken from particular beings becomes general representatives of all the same kind; and their names general names, applicable to whatever exists conformable to such abstract ideas. Such precise, naked appearances in the mind, without considering how, whence, or with what others they came there, the understanding lays up (with names commonly annexed to them) as the standards to rank real existences into sorts, as they agree with these patterns, and to denominate them accordingly. Thus the same color being observed today in chalk or snow, which the mind yesterday received from milk, it considers that appearance alone, make it representative of all of that kind; and having given it the name whiteness, it by that sound signifies the same quality wheresoever to be imagined or met with; and the universals, whether ideas or terms, are made.

10. “If it may be doubted whether beasts compound and enlarge their ideas that way to any degree; this, I think, I may be positive in, that the power of abstracting is not at all in them; and that the having of general ideas is that which puts a perfect distinction between man and the brutes, and is an excellency which the faculties of brutes do by no means attain to. For it is evident we observe no footsteps in them of making use of general signs for universal ideas; from which we have reason to imagine that they have not the faculty of abstracting, or of making general ideas, since they have no use of words, or any other general signs.”

Locke’s use of the word “idea” for animal cognition (par. 10) can be confusing. For Locke, an idea in brute animal consciousness is an “image” derived from sense perception. It is particular and radically distinct in nature from ideas in the human mind, which are universal and abstract. The human mind also uses particular images from sense perception, but it is an error to think of man’s abstract ideas or universal concepts as generalized or vague images. The distinctions between universal and particular, image and (abstract) idea are critical.

In addition, I must note that my use of John Locke's writings is not to be taken as an indication of my endorsement of Lockean empricism. Locke has made a number of critical epistemological errors. My intention in quoting Locke is to provide an example of what is involved in thinking through epistemological problems, and the kind of issues involved in that process. This necessary kind of philosophical analysis is precisely what Carl Sagan lacks.

In the chapter entitled, “The Abstractions of Beasts,” Sagan describes various interesting and intriguing behaviors of orangutans and chimpanzees. For example, he explains the experiments of two psychologists at the University of Nevada, Beatrice and Robert Gardner, who teach chimpanzees American Sign Language (Ameslan). The chimps, with amazing skill, learn to communicate using Ameslan. In addition, at the Yerkes Regional Primate Center in Atlanta, Georgia, researchers teach a chimp named Lana, a unique computer language called “Yerkish.” By using proper Yerkish syntax, Lana can successfully request from a specially built computer, water, juice, companionship, chimp flicks, a big girls’ night out (just kidding), and so on.

From the artificial settings of laboratory experiments such as these, which show something of chimpanzees’ cognitive capacities, Sagan assumes that chimps can abstract. However, Sagan nowhere defines his use of the word “abstraction,” in relation to either chimpanzees or humans. Therefore, we do not know from the text what Sagan means by the word “abstraction”; and we do not know precisely what it is about the chimpanzees’ behavior that Sagan takes for proof of animal abstraction. Sagan merely describes the experiments and makes an unwarranted leap to the conclusion that chimpanzees can think abstractly.

In addition, Sagan does not discuss the critical distinctions of universal and particular knowledge, or sensory image and idea. When we compare Locke’s detailed philosophical analysis of abstraction with Sagan’s superficial discussion, it reveals that Sagan has not given much thought to the subject of abstraction.

Sagan commits the same error common to modern researchers in cognition: failure to distinguish correctly the fundamental difference between perceptual and conceptual thinking. Sagan does have a clear understanding of the diverse modes and kinds of knowledge, and fails to realize that perceptual thinking can sufficiently explain the chimpanzees’ cognitive behavior. There is no need to posit anything additional to perceptual thinking, such as abstraction, to account for primate cognitive behavior. Thus, Sagan’s discussion of animal abstraction has no scientific or philosophic merit.

Sagan’s unwarranted conclusion about animal intelligence leads him into additional absurdities such as his suggestion that chimps have “human rights.” However, personhood is the ground of natural or inherent rights in the individual. Most of us, and rightly so, are not willing to consider animals, no matter how adorable and intelligent, as persons. Sagan asks, “How smart does a chimpanzee have to be before killing him constitutes murder?” His argument is a reductio ad absurdum. For example, if we ascribe human rights to chimps as persons, then chimps must have free will and be morally responsible for their behavior. Will they be afforded full citizenship and be allowed to vote? (Considering the decadent state of our democracy, voting chimpanzees may have certain political advantages.) In addition, since adult chimps do get aggressive, Sagan’s imaginary world will need cops, courts, prisons and parole officers to deal with chimps who commit crimes.

We can see that Sagan is more than a little desperate to narrow the gap between primates and humans with his reference to our genetic likenesses. He says, “For all we know, occasional viable crosses between humans and chimpanzees are possible.”

Sagan’s final query is, “Why are there no nonhuman primates with an existing complex gestural language?” Sagan suggests the possibility that humans “systematically exterminated those other primates who displayed signs of intelligence.” Man may have been an agent of natural selection in suppressing the intellectual competition. Sagan shows how far he has devolved into nonsense when he asserts we can compensate for our (alleged) transgressions against those nonhuman primates of the far distant past: “In teaching gestural language to the chimpanzees, we are beginning a belated attempt to make amends.”

Sagan’s retrograde thinking is the product of the crude materialism of Darwinian ideology. Sagan asserts, “Consciousness and intelligence are the result of mere matter sufficiently complexly arranged.” This is the same philosophical materialism assumed by Darwin when he made the false and very non-scientific claim, “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”

In conclusion, it should be clear that the reductionism of Sagan’s crass materialism precludes him, as it did Darwin, from acquiring a genuine understanding of intellectual abstraction.

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